Plan would create 200 miles of multi-use trails in Scott County

July 15, 2014

legacyGabe Schmuck, 9, left, Nate Schmuck, 5, and their father, Paul Schmuck, rode on the Legacy Trail in Lexington in 2012. Photo by Mark Ashley.

GEORGETOWN — The popular Legacy Trail out of Lexington now stops just short of the Scott County line at the Kentucky Horse Park. But what is now the end of the trail could someday be just the beginning.

Scott County leaders have worked for three years with the regional visioning group Bluegrass Tomorrow and the National Park Service to develop an ambitious plan for Kentucky’s most extensive trails network. Plans call for 200 miles of biking, hiking, horseback riding and waterway trails throughout Scott County.

“Our vision is that this is going to eventually branch out and include the whole region,” said John Simpson, director of Georgetown/Scott County Tourism.

The Bluegrass Bike Hike Horseback Trails Alliance unveiled a draft of the proposed master plan Monday at the monthly meeting of the Georgetown/Scott County Chamber of Commerce.

Alliance leaders hope to finish the plan by the end of the year and begin negotiating property easements, designing trails, raising private money and applying for federal transportation grants.

Some trails would be shared, with bike/pedestrian and horse paths side-by-side, but most would be separate. The plan was developed with help from interested residents during a June 2013 design workshop, and the alliance is eager for more public participation.

At this point, there are no cost estimates, but such a trails network would run well into the millions of dollars. Still, many officials think it would be a great investment.

“This has the potential to have a tremendous impact, economically and socially, on the community,” said Russell Clark, the alliance’s National Park Service representative.

Clark and Rob Rumpke, president of Bluegrass Tomorrow, cited the economic impact that trail systems have had on Damascus, Va., a once-depressed logging town where hikers and mountain bikers now flock to the Appalachian and Virginia Creeper trails; Loveland, Ohio; and Indiana’s Brown County.

The trails alliance has more than a dozen partners, including the cities of Georgetown, Sadieville and Lexington; Scott County Fiscal Court; the state tourism department; the Horse Park; the Kentucky Horse Council; Georgetown College; the University of Kentucky College of Agriculture; the Bluegrass Area Development District; St. Joseph Health System/Kentucky One; and several horseback-riding and cycling groups.

Rumpke said horse trails should be especially popular, given the number of local horse enthusiasts and the tourists who come to Central Kentucky to see horse farms and events.

“We’re the horse capital of the world; why are there so few horseback-riding facilities?” he asked. “This is an opportunity to address that.”

The first step in the plan is to extend the Legacy Trail 6.6 miles from the horse park to Georgetown. Christie Robinson chairs a steering committee that commissioned an engineering feasibility study, which was recently completed. The study estimates the total cost at about $8.3 million, including trailheads, bathrooms and other amenities. It could be built in four phases as money became available.

Georgetown recently awarded the Legacy Trail committee $25,000 as a match to a $100,000 federal grant that it will apply for this fall, Robinson said. That would move the design process forward.

Claude Christensen, mayor of Sadieville, said he sees the trail system as an opportunity to revitalize his town of 303 people at the northern tip of Scott County. Sadieville is applying for “trail town” status with state tourism officials. But it needs trails.

“It’s huge for Sadieville,” Christensen said. “It makes us a destination.”

Simpson, the tourism official, said many Scott County business and government leaders support trails development because they have seen the economic benefit that road cycling enthusiasts have had in the area.

The Bluegrass Cycling Club’s annual Horsey Hundred ride each Memorial Day weekend is based at Georgetown College. This year, more than 2,000 cyclists came from all over North America to ride Central Kentucky’s scenic back roads on marked routes ranging from 25 to 104 miles.

Georgetown hosted a downtown party for the cyclists, who filled Georgetown College’s residence halls and more than half of the 1,100 local motel rooms. A big group from Ontario, Canada, came for an entire week of cycling before the event.

An extensive trail network, along with Central Kentucky’s world-class cycling roads, could make Georgetown a major recreation destination, Simpson said.

“We’re at the starting point of something that could be phenomenal,” he said. “It could bring thousands of tourists to our community and enhance our own quality of life.”


Winter’s last gasp reinforces the joy of springtime in Kentucky

April 15, 2014

Mahan-KeenelandA horse is exercised at Keeneland after Tuesday’s snow. Photo by Mark Mahan. Below, snow melts off a tulip at Mathews Garden at the University of Kentucky. Photo by Pablo Alcala.

 

We should have known this winter would not give up easily. But I just smiled when I woke up Tuesday to that little last gasp of a snow storm.

I smiled because I had already seen, felt and smelled the warm promise of spring. I had a sunburn from the weekend. And I knew that there is no better place to enjoy springtime than in Kentucky.

Two Saturdays ago, I saw the new season arrive on the tiny blooms of Dutchman’s breeches, bloodroot and rare snow trillium. The rugged creeks that feed into the Kentucky River Palisades harbor a unique array of spring wildflowers, both common and endangered.

Wildflower hikes are offered by such places as the Floracliff Nature Sanctuary, the Lower Howard’s Creek Nature and Heritage Preserve and the Salato Wildlife Education Center. But opportunities are limited, and the flowers are fleeting.

More common wildflowers can be enjoyed on lawns whose owners eschew toxic chemicals. My yard is awash in purple violets. The grassy median that divides my street has patches of white spring beauties. The grounds at Ashland, the Henry Clay Estate, have been so covered with spring beauties that it looked as if the snow had arrived there early.

TulipThe lilac bushes beside my front porch have made it a fragrant place to relax on warm evenings and watch my neighbors dust off their bicycles and take a spin.

Last weekend was a perfect opportunity to get reacquainted with some of my cycling friends. Sunshine and perfect temperatures made it feel like late May, although our out-of-shape bodies kept reminding us that it was only early April.

We rode a 35-mile loop Saturday past manicured horse farms in Fayette, Scott and Bourbon counties, then enjoyed a late lunch at Windy Corner Market, where a steady line of customers stretched out the door for hours.

Sunday’s ride was more ambitious: 50-something hilly miles from our Lexington homes to Berea. A few steep climbs and a constant headwind showed who had and who had not kept in shape over the winter. I had not. As we crossed the Kentucky River on the Valley View Ferry, a crew member serenaded us with his guitar. Birds took over the musical duties as we pedaled along Tate’s Creek on the other side, admiring redbud trees in full bloom.

We stopped for lunch at Acres of Land winery, the road up to which required climbing acres of steep asphalt. We needed the rest before continuing on to Boone Tavern for a round of iced tea on the veranda.

Madison County showed a visiting friend from Atlanta a more rugged view of Bluegrass beauty than he had seen the day before. Sadly, though, many back roads were littered with plastic bottles and fast-food cups tossed from passing vehicles. As Forrest Gump would say, “Stupid is as stupid does.”

While we were biking, many others were enjoying one of my favorite spring venues, Keeneland Race Course. Saturday’s weather made it no surprise that nearly 40,000 people attended the Toyota Blue Grass Stakes, the second-largest crowd in history.

I haven’t been to the races yet this season, but I have been to Keeneland. When I can manage to pull myself out of bed an hour before daylight, I like to go out there, walk around the backside and watch exercise riders warm up that day’s competitors on the track. It is one of the best free shows in Lexington.

As the rising sun fully illuminates forsythia and dogwood, and as Keeneland’s equine athletes are being cooled off and groomed, I walk to the Track Kitchen for the sort of delicious breakfast cardiologists disapprove of.

As I finish writing this, the last remnants of the snow have melted off my front yard. The budding leaves on my tulip poplar and the giant sycamore across the street look twice as big as they were yesterday. It will be at least six months before they turn color and fall, big as dinner plates.

So long, winter. Don’t be in any hurry to come back.

 


Warwick nature hike a chance to see rare spring wildflowers

April 9, 2014

If you live in Central Kentucky and like to get out and enjoy its unique natural landscape, you should take at least one early-spring wildflower hike along the Kentucky River Palisades.

I hiked last Saturday morning in the Jessamine Creek gorge with botanist Julian Campbell, an authority on native plants of the Inner Bluegrass and a terrific guide. Among the wildflowers we saw were tiny “Dutchman’s breeches” and a couple of rare snow trillium.

Campbell is leading another hike this Saturday morning, exploring Shantalaya, the nature preserve near the late architectural historian Clay Lancaster’s Warwick estate along the Kentucky River in Mercer County. The event is sponsored by the Warwick Foundation, which now owns and cares for this remarkable Kentucky landmark property.

Below are details of Saturday’s hike (click on the image to enlarge), plus some photos from my hike last Saturday in the Jessamine Creek gorge.

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140405JessGorge0008The Jessamine Creek gorge near Wilmore.

140405JessGorge0032Julian Campbell holds a rare snow trillium

140405JessGorge0040A more common trillium

140405JessGorge0133Dutchman’s Breeches


Update on plans for finishing Lexington trails, adding bike lanes

March 22, 2014

Spring is finally here, which means better weather for bicycling. It also means more opportunities for my fellow cyclists to ask when the Legacy and Town Branch trails will be finished, and when there will be more trails and bike lanes.

Lexington has made progress in the past five years toward building a transportation system for more than motor vehicles, but it still has a long way to go.

Keith Lovan gets those questions more often than I do. And because he is the city engineer who oversees trail and bicycle/pedestrian projects, he actually has some answers. So I called him last week for an update.

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The first section of the Legacy Trail, shown here going through Coldstream Park, opened in September 2010. Photo by Tom Eblen

The main 7.5-mile section of the Legacy Trail, between Loudon Avenue and the Kentucky Horse Park, opened in September 2010. It came together quickly thanks to good public-private partnerships, federal “economic stimulus” money and the urgency of the Alltech FEI World Equestrian Games the next month.

Since then, officials have been working through logistics and funding to bring the trail into town and east to the corner of Midland Avenue and Third Street, where the Isaac Murphy Memorial Art Garden will be built this summer. “It’s all coming together,” Lovan said.

He plans to ask the Urban County Council in April to approve a land swap with R.J. Corman Railroad Group that will allow Legacy Trail construction to continue along a former rail line from near Loudon Avenue to Fifth Street near Jefferson Street.

If approved, work could begin in June and finished this summer, he said. Lovan also is working with the Hope Center on right-of-way near Loudon. That also could happen this summer.

The next step will be taking the trail east along Fourth Street’s existing right-of-way. Once paperwork is finished, design work can begin on that section, based on input from a 30-member citizens advisory group.

For that section, Lovan favors a two-way bike path separated from Fourth Street traffic by short posts or a similar barrier. If all goes well, that work could all be finished by the end of this year, he said.

Meanwhile, a Scott County group is working to extend the Legacy Trail north to Georgetown. That project was started by sports agent Dick Robinson before he died suddenly in 2011. His friends and family have continued the work. “We’re making good progress,” said Robinson’s widow, Christie.

She plans to schedule a public meeting in late April to announce a preferred route. A feasibility study by CDP Engineers of Lexington will be finished in May, she said. Then it will be a matter of raising money. Keep up with the group’s progress on its Facebook page.

Bringing Town Branch Trail into downtown is a more complicated project. Two miles of the trial are finished, from Bracktown off Leestown Road to Alexandria Drive.

Funding has been secured to bring the trail to the Bluegrass Community and Technical College’s Leestown Campus at New Circle Road, but other details must be worked out before construction can begin, said Van Meter Pettit, the trail board’s president.

Pettit is lobbying the state to include the trail’s crossing of New Circle Road and connection to a nearby development’s trails as part of a project this summer to widen that section of the road and its bridges.

Pettit says his plan would be quicker, cheaper and comply with federal directives to include bicycle/pedestrian facilities in highway improvement projects. So far, the state has agreed to accommodate a future trail crossing, but says its budget won’t accommodate what Pettit wants.

The only other trail project coming this year is a half-mile one between Armstrong Mill Road and the Tates Creek schools campus, Lovan said. But several bike-lane projects will be started or finished this year.

Those include bike lanes on Southland Drive, from Nicholasville Road to Rosemont Garden; on Todd’s Road, where 1.5 miles of sidewalks and bike lanes will be added from Forest Hill Drive to Polo Club Boulevard; and Clays Mill Road, where an additional 1,500 feet of bike lanes will be added.

Three bike-lane projects are planned around the University of Kentucky campus: Rose Street between Euclid Avenue and Rose Lane; Cooper Drive between South Limestone and Sports Center Drive; and Woodland Avenue from Euclid to Hilltop Avenue.


Author’s talks will focus on making cities more walkable

January 13, 2014

Urban planners, who in the decades after World War II helped redesign America’s cities and towns around the automobile, have been trying to warn people ever since then that they really screwed up.

Finally, most people are beginning to agree, says Jeff Speck, a veteran city planner and author of the 2012 book Walkable City: How Downtown Can Save America One Step at a Time.

Health professionals cite car culture as a big reason an epidemic in obesity and related physical problems. Economists note that suburban sprawl has become costly to taxpayers because all of the new infrastructure rarely pays for itself. Plus, a lack of public transportation in many areas has put costly burdens of car ownership and maintenance on the working poor.

bookcoverThe environmental movement has had an anti-urban bent since the days of Thomas Jefferson and Henry David Thoreau. But that has changed dramatically.

“And all of a sudden environmentalists discovered that if you live in a city your footprint is much lighter than if you live in sprawl,” Speck said. “In fact, cities are a solution to our environmental crises, both locally and globally.”

Most of all, Speck says, average citizens, from young adults to their empty-nester parents, have embraced cities again. Across the country, home values in walkable, urban neighborhoods are rising much faster than those in the kinds of car-dependent suburbs that have dominated American development since the 1950s.

“Walkable cities actually save us money, make us money and are poised to thrive in the next couple of decades while unwalkable places aren’t,” Speck said in a telephone interview last week from his home in Washington, D.C.

Speck will be talking about these trends — and giving advice to community leaders about how to make their towns more walkable — at a lecture and workshop this week in Frankfort.

Speck will give a lecture at 7 p.m. Thursday at the Grand Theatre on St. Clair Mall, with a book signing to follow. Tickets are $10. On Friday, he will lead a two-hour workshop, beginning at 9 a.m., at the Kentucky Transportation Cabinet Auditorium, 200 Mero St. Admission is $25.

His visit is part of a conference sponsored by the Kentucky Heritage Council in conjunction with the annual winter meeting of the Kentucky Main Street Program, which works to improve life in the historic centers of the state’s towns and cities. Conference registration, including both of Speck’s sessions, is $100. More information: Heritage.ky.gov.

Most people don’t need convincing about the importance of walkability, he said, but they do need help with strategies for making it happen.

speckSpeck’s book notes that many communities made walking more difficult because they were being designed for other considerations. For example, many streets and intersections are oversized to accommodate the largest-possible emergency vehicles. Fewer but bigger schools and parks have been built because they are easier for officials to maintain and show off than the alternative, which often would be easier for citizens to get to and use.

“The twin gods of smooth traffic and ample parking” took the life out of many once-thriving downtowns, Speck writes, turning them into places that are “easy to get to but not worth arriving at.”

Speck writes that there are four criteria for successful pedestrian areas: walking must be safe, comfortable, interesting and useful. By useful, he means that necessities of daily life — shopping, restaurants and workplaces — must be close and arranged so they can be easily accessed by walking.

Speck’s book outlines 10 steps for city walkability. Those include mixed-use neighborhoods, good mass transit, well-designed and affordable parking facilities, ample trees and bicycle-friendly streets.

The biggest challenge many American cities and towns will face in coming years will be retrofitting mid- and late-20th century suburbs to make them more accessible for aging Baby Boomers and the working poor.

“We’ve laid the groundwork for a major social crisis,” he said.

The best hope is often restoring traditional downtowns and making new developments better for walking, biking and mass transit. That will require changing many ingrained rules and attitudes about traffic and street design.

“Most traffic engineers are really nice people,” Speck said. “But they will wreck your city.”  

Watch Jeff Speck’s TED Talk on walkable cities:


Former Disney exec highlights value of natural beauty in cities

October 27, 2013

warner

Katy Moss Warner, center, who once led the American Horticulture Society, was in Lexington last week to promote the economic and aesthetic benefits to city landscape beautification. At a workshop with Lexington leaders Thursday, she talked with Kay Cannon, left, and Ellen Karpf. Photo by Tom Eblen

 

Beautiful landscapes enrich a city — well-tended flowers, trees, gardens and lawns. But when money is tight, it is easy to see them as frills, as costs to be cut.

What is the value of beauty? What is the cost of ugly?

The answer to both questions, says Katy Moss Warner, former president of the American Horticulture Society, is a lot.

Warner spent last week touring Lexington, speaking and meeting with people as an unpaid guest of Friends of the Arboretum and the Fayette County Master Gardeners.

Warner has a degree in landscape architecture and was a Loeb Fellow at Harvard University’s Graduate School of Design. But she said she learned the economic value of beautiful landscapes during the 24 years she spent supervising a staff of 700 as director of horticulture and environmental initiatives at Walt Disney World in Florida.

Disney spends millions each year on advertising and new attractions to lure new visitors. Warner said she struggled to prove the economic return on investing in landscape until visitor surveys revealed some interesting facts: 75 percent of Disney World’s visitors were repeat customers. Why did they keep returning?

“Atmosphere,” she said. “The beauty of the landscape. This is helpful information not just for Walt Disney World but for cities. If cities are beautiful, people will come back. Horticulture can drive revenue.”

At a lecture Wednesday, Warner said many people have “plant blindness” — they often don’t notice the plants around them or realize their value. We move so fast in our daily lives that we fail to notice “the subtle music that truly is the beauty of nature.”

Many cities think plants are nice, but not necessary. Study after study shows they are wrong, she said.

When a city’s public and private spaces are clean and well-landscaped, people tend to be happier, healthier and care more about their neighbors and community. Urban tree canopies reduce energy costs and calm traffic. Indoor plants filter pollution and make people feel better. Good landscaping increases property values.

In places that are ugly, barren or junky, where there is a lot of noise and artificial light pollution, crime goes up and private investment goes down. People understand, consciously or subconsciously, that they don’t want to be there.

“Schools are probably the most derelict landscapes we have,” Warner said. “We design them like prisons.”

But schools are a perfect place to teach children the importance of natural beauty with school vegetable and flower gardens, and planting trees as legacies.

Studies have shown that gardens make good learning environments, especially for students who struggle in structured classrooms. Warner said the most popular attraction at Disney’s Epcot is the vegetable and hydroponic gardens at the Land Pavilion.

Warner is a board member and volunteer for the non-profit organization America in Bloom, which helps cities learn beautification strategies from one another. At a Thursday workshop, she made a pitch for Lexington to participate.

The workshop at the University of Kentucky was attended by Vice Mayor Linda Gorton; three more Urban County Council members; Sally Hamilton, the city’s chief administrative officer; and more than 40 leaders in Lexington’s landscape, horticulture and sustainable agriculture movements. Earlier in the week, Warner met with Mayor Jim Gray.

This was Warner’s first visit to Lexington. She remarked on what a clean city it is for its size, in both affluent and not-so-affluent neighborhoods. She also was impressed by local food and recycling programs, and by good examples of historic preservation and adaptive reuse of old buildings.

In an interview afterward, I asked Warner what she would do to improve Lexington. Her observations were perceptive, especially considering she had spent only three days looking around.

“I think it’s a shame that so much of the historic fabric has been lost downtown, but those spaces offer an opportunity to bring back character through horticulture,” she said, adding that she thinks the Town Branch Commons plan is brilliant. “That could really be a signature for the city.”

Warner thinks Lexington also has a lot of opportunity for beautification by planting native plants, community gardens, installing rooftop greenhouses and by protecting existing assets such as the majestic, centuries-old trees that dot the landscape.

Lexington seems to have fewer walking paths and biking trails than other cities its size, Warner said, so there is an opportunity to create more of them to get people outside and closer to the landscape.

“As a community you also seem to have amazing talent, an amazing spirit, an amazing history,” she said. “I do believe that it takes the whole community to make the community beautiful.”


Suburban lessons for downtown: better parking, service areas

October 12, 2013

When he was studying architecture at the University of Kentucky in the early 1970s, Robert Wagoner became intrigued by the challenges of revitalizing urban Lexington. But that wasn’t where the development business was going then.

So Wagoner went on to a successful career helping develop some of Lexington’s best-known suburban shopping centers. After several years of retirement, though, he is once again thinking a lot about downtown. A man can play only so much golf.

Wagoner has spent many hours driving, walking and biking downtown streets, studying what works and what doesn’t. With help from friends in the design and construction fields, he has translated some of his ideas into elaborate presentations.

Suburban design has been tried in urban settings for decades, usually with poor results. But that isn’t what Wagoner has done.

He has used his experience to consider how tried-and-true suburban strategies focusing on the needs of customers and businesses that serve them can inform the more difficult task of designing dense urban spaces. Good design is all about problem-solving.

I spent a couple of mornings walking and biking around downtown with Wagoner to look at things from his point of view. By the time we stopped for a late breakfast each day, I had a lot of food for thought. I have space today to discuss only a few of his big themes, but they are a good place to start.

Creating more downtown housing is important, Wagoner said. So is attracting out-of-town visitors. But the biggest business opportunity is enticing more suburbanites downtown to eat, shop and have fun.

“The key is expanding and growing the customer base downtown as an option to suburbia,” he said. “Always start with the customer.”

That means making downtown a more beautiful, pleasant and exciting place to be. But it also means focusing on details and infrastructure, not just grand plans and great architecture. Two key issues: parking and service logistics.

“Instead of just dealing with the icing on the cake,” he said, “deal with the pan that bakes the cake — that’s infrastructure.”

Most visitors come downtown in automobiles, and they need parking that is convenient, easy to find, easy to use, makes them feel safe and costs as little as possible.

Some people need convenient street parking for quick stops. Whenever possible, he said, parallel parking should be replaced by angled parking, because it is easier to use and provides more spaces.

Make street parking free for the first two hours, he said. And encourage more reciprocal parking agreements among businesses. Both would improve customer convenience — and that would attract more customers.

Other people want to come downtown and walk around. They need parking garages that are easy to find and use. Garages are costly, but they are much more efficient than the surface lots that contribute to downtown’s gap-toothed ugliness.

Well-marked garages on side streets a block or two from popular pedestrian-friendly streets of shops and restaurants would make the downtown experience more pleasant and convenient. They also would reduce traffic congestion, much of which is caused by people circling around looking for parking, Wagoner said.

If Wagoner were redesigning downtown, he would make Main Street two-way and more pedestrian-friendly by limiting garage access from Main and giving through-traffic more alternatives. He would keep Vine Street one-way going east and reverse one-way Short street to go west.

Then he would put garages along Church Street, where there are now several surface lots. This location would be convenient for both daytime office workers and people who come to restaurants and bars in the evening.

And rather than building a lot of new parking garages near Rupp Arena, Wagoner would shuttle people to the arena from those Church Street garages, or let them walk through downtown and dine or shop on their way. That would make more efficient use of costly parking infrastructure and better incorporate the Rupp and central business districts.

Another of downtown’s biggest shortcomings, Wagoner thinks, is the lack of well-designed delivery and service space behind many businesses. That results in garbage cans on or near sidewalks, and it forces delivery vehicles to use “front” streets, causing noise, traffic congestion and a less-pleasant customer experience.

As he made this point, we were sitting at a sidewalk table outside Shakespeare & Co. on Short Street. A big food delivery truck pulled up in front of us. The rumble of its idling engine made conversation impossible, so we had to move inside.

Wagoner had a lot of insights that can spark good public conversation about improving downtown and making it more successful. Look for more of them in future columns.


Officials open extension of Lexington’s first recreational rail trail

September 30, 2013

130930BrightonTrail0031

Mayor Jim Gray gets help from Maya Wijesiri, 3, and her mother, Wendy Wijesiri, in cutting the ribbon opening the second phase of the Brighton East Rail Rail.  Photo by Tom Eblen

Lexington officials Monday opened the first extension of the the Brighton East Trail, Fayette County’s first rail trail.

The 12-foot-wide recreational trail had run a mile from Bryant Road to Pleasant Ridge Drive, through the new residential neighborhoods around Hamburg. The one-mile extension takes the trail along an old railroad bed into the country as far as Walnut Grove Road.

The original trail, completed in 2007, has been so popular that area residents wanted the extension, said district Council member Kevin Stinnett. As Stinnett, Mayor Jim Gray and Council member Harry Clarke prepared to cut the ribbon on the new section, people from the area were already using it for running, cycling and taking children for stroller rides.

Eventually, city officials hope to extend the trail out to the Clark County line and in to connect with the Liberty Park Trail.

The trail extension was funded by $450,000 in federal, state and local money. But key to the project was an easement donation, 100 feet wide and one-mile long, by property owner Marion Clark. She made the donation because she realized what a good amenity the trail would be to future development of her property, said Keith Lovan, the city engineer who heads local trail projects.

The wide easement allowed the city to preserve existing trees from the old rail line, as well as plant more trees to keep the trail pleasantly shaded in hot weather.

Many other states have developed extensive trail systems using abandoned rail lines. But that has been difficult in Kentucky, because abandoned rail lines were often acquired by adjacent property owners.

Parking for the new trail is at Pleasant Ridge Park, 1350 Pleasant Ridge Drive.


Kentucky poet Maurice Manning gains a national reputation

August 20, 2013

Manning1

 Poet Maurice Manning lives in an 1850s farmhouse on 20 acres near Springfield, fulfilling a pledge he made when he was in graduate school in Alabama. Photos by Tom Eblen

 

SPRINGFIELD — Clouds were gathering for an early evening shower as Maurice Manning leashed his three big dogs and took off down one of the mowed paths that criss-cross almost 20 acres behind his 1850s farmhouse.

“One of my vows when I was in grad school in Alabama was that if I ever made any money from writing, I would buy land in Kentucky,” he said as we ambled through woods, past a stream and across meadows of wildflowers in full August bloom.

“Most farmers wouldn’t think much of what I’ve done with the place,” Manning said of his land, which was grazed and cultivated before nature started reclaiming it. Manning’s daily two-mile walks help his mind harvest a different kind of Kentucky crop.

Manning, 47, who pronounces his first name “Morris,” is attracting national attention as a poet. His first book, Lawrence Booth’s Book of Visions, won the prestigious Yale Series of Younger Poets Award in 2001. His fourth book, The Common Man, was a finalist for the Pulitzer Prize in poetry in 2010.

Manning3Manning was a National Book Awards poetry judge last year and has been a Guggenheim fellow. His poems have appeared in The New Yorker, The Southern Review and The Virginia Quarterly Review. His fifth poetry collection,The Gone and the Going Away, was published in April to good reviews.

The Danville native, whose ancestors helped settle Clay and Rockcastle counties, had divided his time between the Washington County farm he and his wife, Amanda, bought in 2001 and Indiana, where he taught English at Indiana University and, before that, DePauw University.

“For a long time, I felt like I had one foot in Kentucky and one foot in Indiana,” said Manning, who earned his undergraduate degree from Earlham College, a Quaker school in Richmond, Ind.

So two years ago, Manning gave up the security of tenure at Indiana to become an English professor at Transylvania University. He also is a writer in residence, along with another distinguished Kentucky poet, Richard Taylor.

“I love teaching, and teaching at Transy is especially enjoyable because the classes are small and you can get into intense conversations with students,” he said. “I knew I wanted to teach Kentucky students for a variety of reasons. I just feel like I owe a debt to this state since everything I write about is Kentucky.”

The poems in Manning’s most recent book are like tiny short stories with colorful characters from “Fog Town Holler” in the Kentucky of his imagination. His carefully crafted verse is filled with wry humor, evocation of traditional ways of life and a reverence for nature.

“There’s something about the organized rhythm of a poetic line that is a real source of meditation,” said Manning, who plays guitar and is learning the banjo.

Manning has finished another book of poetry, as yet untitled, that includes “intense descriptions of the natural world,” he said. “The motive for that is recognizing how thoroughly we are destroying the natural world.”

Manning said he began writing poetry privately in junior high. He assumed that nobody else was still writing poetry, because all of the poets he studied in English class were dead. That changed when poet Denise Levertov visited a class he was taking at Earlham.

“It made everything seem less mysterious,” he said. “She wasn’t an aloof, obscure person.”

Later, Manning got to know James Still, the celebrated Eastern Kentucky writer and poet, when he was in his 80s. And he found ways to connect with dead poets whose work he admired. In 2009, Manning visited England and walked the landscape that inspired the Romantic poets William Wordsworth and Samuel Coleridge.

Another inspiration was fellow Kentuckian Robert Penn Warren, the only person to win Pulitzer Prizes for both poetry (twice) and fiction. On April 24, Manning was invited to the Library of Congress in Washington to read Warren’s poetry during a celebration of what would have been Warren’s 108th birthday.

Manning said Warren was one of the last prominent American poets who thought poetry was a place for philosophical meditation, for asking profound questions about life. That, he said, is where he hopes his own poetry is heading.

“One of the nice things about being a poet is there’s no money in it,” Manning said. “Believe it or not, that gives you a lot of freedom.”

Manning2Maurice Manning has cut four miles of walking paths through his 20-acre farm. 

 


Kroger on Euclid a chance for Lexington to do urban infill right

July 20, 2013

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A recent rendering of the design for the exterior of the new Kroger store on Euclid Avenue, incorporating ideas from architect Graham Pohl.  Photo provided

 

The design of a new grocery is usually of little interest beyond its neighborhood. But the Kroger reconstruction on Euclid Avenue offers some important lessons for Lexington as the city focuses more on urban infill and redevelopment.

Kroger has had this Chevy Chase grocery for decades, a suburban-style box behind a wrap-around parking lot. As the neighborhoods surrounding it have become more dense, the store has become more crowded.

While new, small markets such as Town Branch and Shorty’s have filled an important niche, this Kroger is the only supermarket close to Lexington’s increasingly popular intown neighborhoods. Residents there want more shopping options without having to drive to the suburbs.

Kroger plans to spend $19 million building a new store on the site, plus four adjacent quarter-acre lots it acquired. The grocery’s size will increase from 38,000 square feet to 65,000, although some of that new space will be basement storage. In addition to a surface lot, there will be a ramp and parking on the roof.

A larger store requires a zoning change, which has been approved by the Planning Commission and will go before Council on Aug. 13.

Kroger’s initial design was uninspiring — a plain, suburban-style box oriented toward a parking lot rather than the street, as are most buildings in that neighborhood, most of which was developed during the first four decades of the 20th century.

Architect Graham Pohl of the firm Pohl Rosa Pohl offered to donate his services to Kroger to help improve the exterior design to make it more compatible. He also wanted the store to be more pedestrian- and bicycle-friendly, since that is the way many of Kroger’s customers get there.

“My passion is good design, and I wanted a building that responded to the urban setting and looked like it had been designed, not a building that looked like an afterthought,” said Pohl, who has lived and worked in the neighborhood — and shopped at that Kroger — since 1980.

Pohl said Kroger has been very receptive to his ideas for improving the store’s design. “I have seen a real effort on their part to do the right thing,” he said.

Pohl attributes much of that to city leadership. Mayor Jim Gray has made it clear to Kroger and other developers that infill projects must be well-designed and appropriate to their surroundings.

That is the first important lesson: When city officials and residents make it clear that mediocre design is no longer good enough for Lexington, developers will respond. If a city wants design excellence, it must insist on it.

Pohl, who said he was paid nothing for his work, showed me recent versions of the Kroger design that are dramatically better than the initial ones, in both function and appearance. If Kroger follows through, the store will be better-looking, more compatible with the neighborhood and a more pleasant place to shop.

FortKrogerBut some of the store’s neighbors still aren’t happy, and they are opposing the zoning change. Driving through the neighborhood last Thursday, I saw three yellow yard signs that said, “No to Fort Kroger.”

Opponents say the new store is too big for the site and will create traffic congestion. Pohl thinks some of their fears are exaggerated, but he said city officials should continue to work with Kroger to address several issues. Those include outdoor lighting, pedestrian and cyclist safety, the addition of a bus shelter and limits on when delivery trucks can idle at the loading docks.

City officials should work with Kroger on sensible compromises to make this bigger grocery succeed. Still, it is unlikely every neighbor will be satisfied.

We say it all the time in Lexington, to the point that it has become a cliché: we need to grow up, not out, if we want to preserve our unique rural landscape from more suburban sprawl.

That kind of growth means more infill and redevelopment, and that often means increasing population density. People in Lexington have never been comfortable with increasing density, but that must change.

The Euclid Avenue Kroger project is an excellent opportunity for Lexington to learn more about good urban design and increasing density, and to figure out how to do it right.

 


Authors document Robinson Forest in the hope of preserving it

May 7, 2013

 

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In their new book, “The Embattled Wilderness,” Erik Reece and James Krupa write this: “To look out over the forest’s steep ridges — slopes that novelist James Still called ‘a river of earth’ — is to understand that Robinson Forest is simultaneously one of the most biologically diverse landscapes in North America and one of the most threatened.” Photos by Tom Eblen  

 

JACKSON — As we hike uphill through beech and yellow poplar trees, a wild turkey flies out of the woods and across the trail in front of us. A few hundred yards higher, Erik Reece stops suddenly and points at a scarlet tanager foraging among the oaks.

At the crest of the ridge, we climb an old fire tower and are rewarded with a spectacular view of Robinson Forest. On this clear, spring morning, the forest looks like a rolling “river of earth,” as James Still described the natural landscape of Eastern Kentucky in his classic 1940 novel, River of Earth.

The green waves roll out in every direction until they suddenly stop at Robinson Forest’s boundary. Beyond the boundary are huge, gray scars from surface mining and the flattened, denuded remnants of “reclaimed” coal-mine land, now struggling to support foreign grasses and scrubby trees.

“We hope more people will go to Robinson Forest, but a lot of Kentuckians won’t, so we wanted them to experience it vicariously,” said Reece, co-author with James J. Krupa of the new book,The Embattled Wilderness: The Natural and Human History of Robinson Forest and the Fight for Its Future (University of Georgia Press, $24.95).

Reece will sign copies of the book from 6 to 7:30 p.m. Friday at The Morris Book Shop, 882 E. High St.

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Erik Reece on Lewis Fork creek in Robinson Forest.

Reece is a UK English professor best known for his award-winning 2006 book, Lost Mountain: Radical Strip Mining and the Devastation of Appalachia. Like Lost Mountain, this book has a forward by renowned Kentucky author Wendell Berry.

Krupa is a UK biology professor who over decades of study has explored every ridge and valley of the main 10,000-acre block of the 14,786-acre forest, which contains some of the state’s cleanest streams.

“It is one of the last and largest examples of the oldest, most biologically diverse ecosystem in North America — the mixed mesophytic,” the authors write in their introduction.

“Unfortunately, industrial development has churned under the mountains surrounding these 14,000 acres, turning Robinson Forest into an island of biological diversity surrounded by an ever-expanding desert,” they write, adding that there is every reason to believe that coal and timber interests want to plunder this land, too.

Reece and Krupa are both fine writers. In this small, engaging book, they alternate chapters, explaining the natural and human history of this unique corner of Breathitt, Perry and Knott counties and making a case to preserve it.

Krupa describes the geological history of Robinson Forest and the surrounding Cumberland Plateau, which was formed before there were dinosaurs, mammals or even flowering plants. These mountains were once covered by a shallow inland sea and then swamps. Dead ferns and trees sank to the bottom for thousands of years, forming peat and eventually bituminous coal.

Krupa also discusses his research into the ecological diversity of the current forest. Who knew lichens and wood rats could be so fascinating?

Reece’s chapters describe the forest’s human history, from settlement to the early 20th century, when Cincinnati business partners F.W. Mobray and E.O. Robinson bought the forest and cut virtually all of its timber.

In 1923, Robinson gave the wasted land to the University of Kentucky for research to “tend to the betterment of the people of the mountain region of Kentucky.” Under UK’s stewardship, most of the land has regenerated over the past 90 years into a second-growth version of the biologically diverse, native forest.

But coal operators, who wield considerable clout, have periodically pressured UK to allow mining in the forest. Reece said he and Krupa decided to write this book after the UK Board of Trustees’ controversial 2007 decision to clear-cut 800 acres of the main forest.

Although the forest recovered from clear-cutting a century ago, critics doubt that can happen again because of the extensive surface mining on surrounding land and the planting of invasive species as part of mine “reclamation.”

Reece said he and Krupa hope their book will prompt UK officials to rethink their management strategy for Robinson Forest and embrace a broader ecological research mission. A part of such a mission could be helping Kentucky adapt to climate change.

Specifically, the authors urge broader input into decision-making about the forest. Currently, Robinson Forest is managed by UK’s Forestry Department. Also, they want UK to separate research and revenue goals, so that there is not periodic temptation to log or mine Robinson Forest to make money for the university.

Reece is up for tenure this year, and he acknowledges this book won’t be popular in some corners of the university. But he thinks Robinson Forest is worth fighting to preserve.

He said the book was inspired by The Unforeseen Wilderness, which UK commissioned Berry to write in 1971. It advocated for preservation of the Red River Gorge at a time when the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers wanted to destroy it with a flood-control dam.

“We want to give readers a sense of why Robinson Forest is worth saving,” Reece said. “If you can convince people to love something, they won’t destroy it.”

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Excerpts from the final chapter of The Embattled Wilderness

“Robinson Forest is many things: it is one of the most important eco-systems in Appalachia, it is a laboratory for crucial research and teaching, and it is a gift held in trust for future generations of Kentuckians. But it is also a model for how we must proceed in our habitation of the natural world. In fact, Robinson Forest represents a model for an entirely new definition of “economy,” whereby our American systems of exchange, both of wealth and energy, are brought in 130508ReeceBookCover001line with the most important and inescapable economy of nature.”

“What we as 21st century Americans must finally come to understand is that the economy of consumption operates in direct opposition to, and at the peril of, the economy of nature. … Kentucky should look to Robinson Forest as a model for a sustainable, post-coal economy. We must replace the industrial logic of the strip mine with the much more ancient wisdom of the forest.”

“To abandon wilderness places like Robinson Forest would be to abandon ourselves. To ignore the natural laws of its watersheds for the logic of our own industrial imagination would be to abandon our better selves — to abandon a sustainable future for the sake of short-term avarice and indulgence. But to preserve the world will mean learning the lessons of Robinson Forest, and in doing so learning to preserve that embattled wilderness.”

 


State bicycle summit planned, and money available for projects

March 26, 2013

I have been bicycling in the countryside for fun and exercise for nearly two decades. One of my New Year’s resolutions for 2013 was to make most of my short, in-town trips by bicycle once spring arrived.

Spring arrived last Wednesday. Despite below-freezing temperatures in the morning and a cold afternoon wind, two trips downtown and one to the University of Kentucky campus went well. Since then, it has snowed. And snowed.

Oh well, one of these days the weather will catch up to the calendar. When it does, more Kentuckians will be looking to bicycles as a means of transportation, an enjoyable form of exercise and even a vehicle for economic development.

To jump-start those efforts, the Kentucky Rails to Trails Council and several other organizations are planning the first Kentucky Walk Bike Summit, April 11 and 12 at the Capital Plaza Hotel in Frankfort.

WalkBikeThe summit was modeled after the Lexington Bike Summit that Mayor Jim Newberry’s administration helped put together in 2007. It gave momentum to several Lexington efforts, including new bike lanes and the highly popular Legacy Trail.

Bill Gorton, a Lexington lawyer who is chairman of the state Bicycle and Bikeways Commission, said the goal of the summit is to share stories and strategies about successful projects around the state with people in other communities who want to do their own.

“We want to create a place where people get together and meet other people and share the stories about how they made these things happen,” Gorton said. “We’re hoping some of the smaller communities will work with the Transportation Cabinet and other sources of funding and say, ‘You know what, we can do that!’”

Among an extensive list of speakers and panelists are Lt. Gov. Jerry Abramson, a cyclist who as Louisville mayor began a 100-mile trail around the city; Transportation Cabinet Secretary Mike Hancock; David Adkisson, president of the Kentucky Chamber of Commerce; Andy Clarke, president of the League of American Bicyclists; and representatives of state cycling groups and the Federal Highway Administration.

Gorton said the Transportation Cabinet has become more supportive of bike lanes and trails, such as the one connecting Lexington and Wilmore that was built along old U.S. 68 when the road was widened several years ago.

“It took the engineer in the district to say, ‘Hey, we can do that,’” Gorton said. “But these things need continued attention and advocacy.”

In addition to making existing roads safer for cyclists, Gorton said recreational trails can become important economic development assets. They are a part of the Beshear administration’s focus on “adventure tourism.”

One such effort involves converting abandoned rail lines into trails. Kentucky has only about 30 miles of those trails scattered around the state, and most are short. The most ambitious project now under way is the Dawkins Line, which would be a 36-mile trail in Breathitt, Johnson and Magoffin counties.

“There’s lots to see and experience in rural Kentucky, and by creating a destination like that, it can serve as the nucleus of other tourist activities,” Gorton said. “If you could link these with Kentucky State Parks, which are some of the best in the nation, there are great opportunities. You’ve got to have people see the potential.”

For more information and to register for the Kentucky Walk Bike Summit, go to Kywalkbikesummit.com.

I see the tourism potential for road cycling in Central Kentucky every Memorial Day weekend, when I run a rest stop at the annual Horsey Hundred ride. The Bluegrass Cycling Club, of which I am a member, has sponsored the two-day recreational ride for 35 years.

The Horsey Hundred is two days of supported rides of between 26 and 100 miles. The event attracts about 2,000 participants each year. I have met people at the Horsey who came from across North America, including a big group of Canadians who spend more than a week each year riding our back roads (and spending money at our hotels, restaurants and stores).

The Bluegrass Cycling Club makes money on the Horsey and gives most of it away to bicycle-related philanthropic projects in Central Kentucky. Grants are in the $2,000 to $4,000 range. For more information about applying, go to Bgcycling.org. The application deadline for this funding cycle is May 15.

Surely by then the snow will be gone.


Town Branch Commons designer focuses on green infrastructure

February 10, 2013

A rendering for Scape/Landscape Architecture’s plan for Town Branch Commons, showing how it might look west of Rupp Arena. Images provided.

 

Kate Orff, whose New York landscape architecture firm was chosen last week to design Town Branch Commons, has made a name for herself by looking below the surface and beyond the conventional.

The approach served her well with Lexington’s Downtown Development Authority, which hopes to create green space through the center of the city along the path of the long-buried Town Branch Creek.

Orff said in an interview that her team figured out quickly that the key to this project wasn’t recreating the stream as it used to be, but working with the complex limestone geology and hydrology beneath Lexington’s streets and structures.

She also realized that Town Branch Commons should do more than create beautiful public space to attract people and private development. It should play an important role in solving Lexington’s persistent storm-water and water pollution problems.

In addition to being a partner in the firm Scape/Landscape Architecture, Orff is an assistant professor of architecture and urban design at Columbia University. As founder and co-director of the university’s Urban Landscape Lab, she leads seminars on integrating earth sciences into urban design and planning.

With Town Branch Commons, Orff said she saw an opportunity to accomplish goals that are often seen as contradictory: increasing commercial development and sustainably improving the environment.

“This Lexington project is an amazing opportunity for me to try to bring those two realms together,” Orff said. “I really think that’s the future, this concept of green infrastructure.”

Orff said green infrastructure has many advantages: It is less costly to build and maintain than concrete and pipes. It is less prone to massive failure, because it is less centralized. And it provides the side benefit of public green space.

“But you have to think very systematically,” she said. “It requires more, frankly, of the urban space. It’s more of a dispersed strategy of touching the water where it lands at multiple points in multiple ways. But a more dispersed model leaves you more room for resiliency.”

Orff, 41, grew up in Maryland and earned a bachelor’s degree in political and social thought from the University of Virginia, then a master’s degree in landscape architecture from Harvard University.

She started Scape/Landscape Architecture in 2004. The firm’s projects have ranged from a 1,000-square-foot park in Brooklyn, N.Y., to a 1,000-acre landfill regeneration project in Dublin, Ireland.

Orff has made several national lists of up-and-coming designers. Last year, the organization United States Artists chose her as one of 50 American artists to receive $50,000 fellowship awards.

She was co-author, along with photographer Richard Misrach, of the 2012 book Petrochemical America, which created an ecological atlas of the petrochemical industry’s effects on the 150-mile Mississippi River corridor between Baton Rouge and New Orleans known as “Cancer Alley.”

Currently, Orff’s firm is doing projects in New York, New Jersey, Chicago and Greenville, S.C., where she is working on an environmental education center with Jeanne Gang, the Chicago architect and MacArthur “genius” award winner who did the site plan for the proposed CentrePointe development in Lexington.

Perhaps Orff’s most high-profile effort is a proposal to restore the Gowanus and Red Hook sections of New York harbor with a system of designed oyster beds. Before harbor dredging and industrialization, oysters flourished there. One oyster has the ability to cleanse 50 gallons of water per day. (She explains the project in a TED talk online. Watch it at the end of this post.)

Her “Oystertecture” plan, which will begin with a pilot project in March, has attracted a lot more attention since superstorm Sandy showed the vulnerability of the Northeast’s urban coast. Orff is part of a task force New York Mayor Michael Bloomberg appointed to study those issues.

To prepare her Lexington proposal, Orff said she studied water flow data and made floodplain maps to understand downtown’s hydrology and geology. For local knowledge and engineering expertise, she engaged Lexington-based EHI Consultants and Sherwood Design Engineers, a major national firm.

Orff also met with city officials to understand Lexington’s consent decree with the Environmental Protection Agency, which will require millions of dollars in fixes for long-ignored water quality problems throughout Fayette County.

“Before we ever started to design, we did a very comprehensive series of maps that included flooding, the SSO (sanitary sewer overflow) events and so on,” Orff said. “We had a very clear sense of how water was moving and the amounts of water and what would be possible and what would not be possible.”

Orff said her team also tried to work with what already existed or was proposed for downtown “rather than tearing down and starting over from scratch, because clearly a lot of money has been spent already.”

Orff plans to return to Lexington in a few weeks to meet with stakeholders and the public to gather feedback and ideas. Then, more civil engineering will be needed, as well as a plan for how to build the project in phases.

“We are aiming to refine the plan and provide some alternatives for different areas,” she said. “I think the way our scheme kind of fits within the landscape, it provides a lot of alternatives and backup plans.”

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Town Branch Commons: an idea that has worked in other cities

February 3, 2013

Hardly a week goes by that people don’t tell me how they wish the open block where the Webb Companies hopes to build CentrePointe could become a public park instead.

As the block awaits redevelopment, it is planted in grass and surrounded by a plank fence to resemble a horse pasture. It has become a popular gathering place during downtown festivals. (At other times, it is off-limits, just as horse pastures are.)

CentrePasture’s popularity points to a couple of ironies about Lexington.

One is that we have a lot of open space, but little public space. The other is that we are surrounded by some of the world’s most beautiful rural landscapes — an artful blend of the natural and man-made — but our central business district is a generic jungle of concrete and asphalt. There are only a handful of small parks or plazas downtown, and few trees of any size.

Although recent renovations of Triangle and Cheapside parks have been excellent, the comments I hear make me think Lexington residents still yearn for more public space downtown.

Town Branch Creek resurfaces west of Rupp Arena. Herald-Leader photo

The Downtown Development Authority on Monday will choose the winner of a design competition for Town Branch Commons — some form of linear park on city-owned property along the path of the long-buried stream that gave birth to Lexington.

This project would involve bringing parts of the creek back to the surface, either literally or symbolically, to create attractive public spaces for nature and a variety of activities. A jury of design professionals was to recommend a winner to the DDA board after closed-door presentations Friday by the five finalists.

The competition attracted 23 entries. The finalists are among the world’s best landscape architects and designers: Coen + Partners in Minneapolis; Denver-based Civitas; the Netherlands firm Inside Outside; Scape Landscape Architecture of New York; and Copenhagen-based Julien De Smedt Architects working with Balmori Associates of New York.

All five finalists’ designs will be on display at the Downtown Arts Center from Tuesday until Feb. 22, including during Gallery Hop on Feb. 15.

I can’t wait to see the designs, especially after hearing the finalists make presentations about their previous work Thursday at the Lexington Children’s Theatre. They showed amazing projects from all over the world, including in cities such as Bilbao, Spain, that had far more daunting problems than Lexington has.

(An interesting side note is that three of the six presenters were women: design legends Diana Balmori and Petra Blaisse and one of landscape architecture’s rising stars, Kate Orff.)

(Also worth mentioning: several of the landscape architects showed projects that used wetland parks to effectively solve storm-water problems. Lexington officials should remember that as they decide how to spend millions of dollars on storm water issues under terms of the federal consent decree.)

I can already hear Lexington’s naysayers: This whole idea is impractical, unaffordable and frivolous. It is none of that.

The compelling argument for Town Branch Commons is not esthetic, but economic. This sort of urban public space has been an effective way to attract people and investment dollars to cities of all sizes, from Seoul, South Korea to Yonkers, N.Y.

People who have attended recent Commerce Lexington trips have seen it work in Greenville, S.C., where a long-neglected riverbank became Falls Park; and in San Antonio, where a once-buried stream similar to Town Branch became the Riverwalk, now Texas’ second-largest tourist attraction after the Alamo.

New York’s High Line project turned an abandoned elevated rail line into a linear park that has transformed a once-decaying section of lower Manhattan. Despite huge cost overruns, the Millennium Park that Chicago built over an urban rail yard has more than paid for itself with the private development it has attracted.

The kind of public-private partnership envisioned with Town Branch Commons is under way in Atlanta, which is turning an abandoned rail line around the city into 1,300 acres of parks and 33 miles of trails, and in Louisville, which has raised more than $60 million in private money for the 21st Century Parks project that is creating 4,000 acres of linear parkland and 100 miles of trails around that city.

What excites me about the potential of Town Branch Commons was mentioned frequently by the world-class designers who submitted plans. This isn’t about building Disney World in a swamp; it is an authentic reflection of Lexington’s history, geography and culture.

Pioneers chose Town Branch as the site for their town, laying out Lexington’s grid according to the creek’s path rather than a compass. Its banks were where early Lexingtonians gathered for fun and refreshment before the stream was polluted, built over and eventually buried.

Town Branch Commons will require public money and even more private money. But it could be a great long-term investment, one that uses the authenticity of Lexington’s past to create both an amenity and economic generator for the future.


Former council member’s first backpacking trip was a doozy

July 25, 2012

Three generations of the Stevens family: David, 15, Scott, 55, and David, then 82, at Philmont Scout Ranch last month. They backpacked for 10 days at high altitudes. Photo provided

 

David Stevens had never been backpacking before. But he skis and plays golf, so, he thought, how hard could it be?

Besides, he figured, it would be fun to accompany son Scott, 55, and grandson David, 15, on their 10-day backpacking trip to Philmont Scout Ranch in the mountains of northern New Mexico.

“I thought I was in shape,” said Stevens, 83, a retired physician and a former Lexington-Fayette Urban County Council member. “When I got there, I discovered that I wasn’t in as good shape as I thought.

“The uphill climbs were breathtaking, literally,” he said, and the backpack aggravated his sciatica, a nerve condition that can affect the lower back and legs. “It was pretty exhausting, but I made it.”

As of this summer, more than 1 million Boy Scouts and adult leaders have backpacked at Philmont since it opened in 1938. The 137,500-acre ranch has elevations ranging from 6,500 to 12,441 feet, making the air much thinner than in Lexington, at 978 feet above sea level.

Not many three-generation families take Philmont treks, said a ranch spokeswoman, Beverly Ponterio. Stevens wasn’t Philmont’s oldest backpacker, but those older than 75 rarely complete the entire 10-day hike of more than 50 miles, she said.

In a concession to age, Stevens didn’t join the others in hiking to the top of the two tallest peaks: Mount Phillips and the Tooth of Time, a bare rock that is the signature feature on Philmont’s landscape.

Stevens, immediate past president of the Boy Scouts’ 55-county Blue Grass Council, took the trip last month with 40 boys and adult leaders from the region. He was in one of two 10-member crews from Troop 73 at Centenary United Methodist Church. His group was led by Dan Miller, a Lexington lawyer.

Stevens admitted that he should have prepared by doing more than hiking a few miles with a loaded pack at Raven Run Nature Sanctuary and The Arboretum. “It’s not like hiking at The Arboretum,” he said.

Scott Stevens, a radiologist who keeps in shape by cycling, said, “He was fine on the flats and going downhill, but the hills were just all he could do. He had never been backpacking; he didn’t understand how hard it could be, going up those hills at that altitude.”

Scott Stevens hiked with his father while the pace was set by the boys and the fourth adult crew member, pediatric cardiologist Mark Vranickar.

“I was the second-slowest,” group leader Miller said. “I was glad Dr. Stevens was along so I wasn’t the slowest. Not many people his age could have done that trek. It was a challenge for all ages.”

Scott Stevens was impressed when three Scouts offered to carry some of his father’s gear during the toughest climbs. The boys might have hiked a little slower than they would have otherwise, he said, “but they learned something from this; they learned patience.”

After backpacking 4 to 8 miles each morning to the next camp, Scouts were taught new skills by Philmont staffers. They learned to fly fish, throw a tomahawk, shoot a black-powder rifle, climb a pole with boot spars and even milk a goat. They set up and broke camp, cooked all of their meals and cleaned up after themselves.

David Stevens was a Boy Scout while growing up in Louisville in the 1940s; his son was a Scout, too. They are proud of the younger David, a member of the Henry Clay High School golf team who is close to achieving Eagle Scout rank, something they didn’t do.

Stevens said a big reason he went to Philmont was to develop a deeper relationship with his grandson and “see what kind of person he really is.”

“He’s usually pretty quiet when our families get together,” Stevens said. “But he interacted well with his peers, spoke up. I found out that he’s not lazy. He’s good at making up his own mind.”

Stevens’ son and grandson also learned something about him.

“He’s very persistent; he doesn’t give up easily,” his grandson said. “There were times when I thought he wouldn’t make it, but he stuck it out to the very finish, and I thought that was just incredible.”

“I knew he was tough,” Scott Stevens said. “But I didn’t realize how tough he was.”

“I’m glad I went,” David Stevens said. “But I don’t believe I’m going back this year.”

 


Review board likely to nix CentrePointe pedway

March 6, 2012

Lexington's pedways include this one across Main Street. Photo by Tom Eblen

Designs for the stalled CentrePointe development have gone from bad to good for one reason: they must pass muster with the Courthouse Area Design Review Board.

When the hotel-retail- condo project was proposed in 2008, the board appointed by Mayor Jim Newberry to oversee the historic district let developer Dudley Webb do almost anything he wanted. But the board’s expectations have gotten much higher since Jim Gray became mayor 14 months ago.

The board meets March 28 to vote on what is supposed to be Webb’s final design. Based on board members’ comments at a preview Feb. 15 — and further improvements Webb’s architects made in response to that feedback — I expect the designs will be approved, except for one thing: the pedway.

When Webb and his brother, Donald, were remaking Lexington’s skyline with tall towers in the 1980s, they connected them with pedways, enclosed walkways through the sky that keep pedestrians out of the weather and off the street. The pedways provide access to Lexington Center, which includes Rupp Arena and convention facilities, from the Lexington Financial Center, Victorian Square, the Radisson, Triangle Center and the Central Bank building.

About two dozen North American cities built pedway and tunnel systems from the 1950s to the 1980s for people who didn’t want to venture outside on their trips from attached suburban garages to downtown offices and stores. Pedways were seen as safe havens against urban crime and decay, as well as amenities to help downtown retailers compete with suburban malls.

Like most urban planning ideas from the auto-centric second half of the 20th century, about the best thing you can say now about pedways is that they seemed like a good idea at the time.

Pedways might make some sense in harsh-weather cities such as Calgary, Alberta; Minneapolis, and Chicago. But cities below the frost belt have stopped building pedways — and even started tearing them down.

Since 2002, Cincinnati has been in the process of demolishing much of its pedway system. Officials didn’t like the way it limited healthy street life and cluttered the skyline, especially in such places as Fountain Square. They also could see big maintenance costs on the horizon as the pedways aged.

CentrePointe’s first three designs included two pedways, one spanning Upper Street to connect the development to the Lexington Financial Center parking garage. The other would have spanned South Limestone, going to a parking deck beneath Phoenix Park that no longer is planned.

CentrePointe was approved in late 2008 for tax-increment financing, or TIF, which means tax revenue generated by the development could be used to pay for “public” improvements needed to build the project. That included $3 million for the two pedways.

Webb is now proposing only the South Upper Street pedway, which would pass between two historic buildings across the street, the 1846 McAdams & Morford building and the circa 1860 building that houses McCarthy’s Bar and Failte Irish Imports.

When questioned by Courthouse Area Design Review Board member Kevin Atkins, a senior adviser to the mayor, Webb said the pedway was needed for easier access to parking and to provide a sheltered walkway between CentrePointe’s hotel and the convention center.

But Atkins wasn’t buying it, and neither were two others on the five-member board, chairman Mike Meuser and Michael Speaks, the dean of the University of Kentucky’s College of Design.

Speaks seemed especially annoyed by Webb’s suggestion that pedestrians might feel safer in a pedway than on the street. “I live downtown and it’s perfectly safe,” Speaks said. “Probably safer than the suburbs.”

CentrePointe’s redesign process has focused a lot on creating street-level pedestrian activity. The board is loathe to let Webb do anything that would detract from it.

It also seems reluctant to clutter the skyline between two historic buildings on Upper Street. EOP Architects has worked hard to keep that narrow block from becoming a service alley, and a pedway wouldn’t help.

Does the board think a pedway is worth more than $1 million in TIF “public improvements” money? I doubt it. Plus, there is the issue of future maintenance costs. Lexington has recently been hit with big bills for repairing and replacing aging parking garages. The pedways we already have aren’t getting any younger.

For all of those reasons, expect the review board to put its collective foot down and reject the CentrePointe pedway.

 


Walk down Short Street is long on Lexington history

December 24, 2011

The street is named Short, but it is long on Lexington history.

I have been thinking about how this milelong street, which runs parallel to Main Street through downtown, ties together so many aspects of Lexington’s colorful and checkered past. I quickly came up with a dozen examples.

When I mentioned it to Jamie Millard, director of the Lexington History Museum, he quickly offered a dozen more. (The history museum, by the way, is on Short Street, in the old Fayette County Court House. It is worth a visit. More information: Lexingtonhistorymuseum.org.)

Maybe you will have a spare hour during the holidays, some nice weather and an urge to get out of the house for a walk. Clip this column and take a tour with me down Short Street.

Start on the west side, where Short Street begins at Newtown Pike. But first look behind you at the statue atop the 120-foot column rising out of Lexington Cemetery. It marks the grave of Lexington’s most famous citizen, early 19th-century statesman Henry Clay.

As you begin walking along Short through Lexington’s first suburb, you will see many homes Henry Clay would have seen. To your right, on the corner just across Old Georgetown Street, is the former home of Billy Klair, a colorful political boss in the early 1900s.

If you look beyond adjacent Klair Alley, you will see a gas station, the site of Belle Brezing’s childhood home. Brezing grew up to run a famous house of prostitution and is thought to have inspired the Belle Watling character in Gone With the Wind.

At Jefferson Street, you enter Lexington’s 1791 city limits. The next long block toward Broadway is filled with history. On your right, where First Baptist Church now stands, was the city’s original graveyard. It filled up quickly during the 1833 cholera epidemic.

William “King” Solomon, an alcoholic vagrant, became a local hero during that epidemic, risking his life to bury hundreds. After he died in 1854, the community saw to it that he was buried in Lexington Cemetery with an impressive monument. When you get home, search the Internet and read James Lane Allen’s fascinating 1891 story, King Solomon of Kentucky.

Farther along Short Street, you will pass two old homes on your left with a historical marker between them. They replaced two older ones where Mary Todd Lincoln was born in 1818 and where her grandmother, Elizabeth Parker, lived next door. (The future first lady moved to what is now the Mary Todd Lincoln House museum on Main Street when she was 14.)

When Abraham Lincoln visited his wife’s family in 1849, he got perhaps his most close-up view of the evil institution he would later take the lead in abolishing. There were slave jails across the street from the Todd and Parker homes and to their side facing Broadway. That side property is now occupied by three historic buildings: St. Paul Catholic Church, Sts. Peter & Paul School and Lexington Opera House.

The Short Street jail was Lexington’s most notorious because, from 1849 to 1856, it is where slave trader Lewis Robards kept what he called his “choice stock” — young mixed-race women he sold into sexual slavery.

In the block past Broadway, you will see the soon-to-close Metropol restaurant. It is housed in Lexington’s oldest surviving post office building, circa 1825. When you come to Mill Street, look to your right. The left side of Mill housed the shop of the great silversmith Asa Blanchard. Further on was the office of Cassius M. Clay’s 1840s abolitionist newspaper, The True American. It was an unpopular publication in slave-holding Lexington, so Clay guarded the door with a cannon.

The right side of Mill has the remaining half of a building that was a confectionery and ballroom operated by Mathurin Giron. The building now houses Silks Lounge. Giron’s upstairs ballroom played host to Lexington’s most prominent visitors in the early 1800s, including President James Monroe and the Marquis de Lafayette.

Cheapside was for many years the center of Lexington commerce, including outdoor slave auctions. Mary Todd Lincoln’s father had a store where Bluegrass Tavern is now. The old courthouse on the public square was Lexington’s fourth. Before that, in the 1780s, there was a log school, where the teacher was once attacked by a wildcat.

You might be tired of walking by now, but keep going for a few more blocks. You will come to the Deweese Street intersection, once the commercial hub of black Lexington. There you will find one of the city’s least-known historic buildings.

Now Central Christian Church’s child-care center, it was built in 1856 to house First African Baptist Church. It is an interesting piece of Italianate architecture, but what is most remarkable is that it was financed and built by slaves and free blacks.

The building was something of a monument to the church’s longtime minister, London Ferrill, who died two years before its completion. Under his leadership, the congregation grew to become Kentucky’s largest, black or white.

Ferrill was widely respected by both races. His funeral procession in 1854 was said to have been the largest Lexington had ever seen, save for one — that of Henry Clay two years earlier.

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2-way streets would boost downtown’s revival

December 5, 2011

As a boy in the late 1960s, Ken Silvestri worked weekends at his grandfather’s fruit stand outside the McCrory’s store on Main Street, where the Lexington Public Library now stands.

Shoppers were beginning to leave downtown for the new Turfland Mall and other suburban stores, “but there were still lots of people on the street,” he recalled.

Then, in 1971, Main and Vine streets became one-way thoroughfares to speed traffic through the city. Other downtown street pairs were converted to become one-way including Short and Second; Maxwell and High; and Limestone and Upper.

“After Main became a one-way street, the traffic was moving so fast it changed the complexion of the place,” Silvestri said. Fewer people walked by, and it was harder for drivers to stop to buy apples and oranges. Sales dwindled at his grandfather’s fruit stand. “After a while, he just closed it,” he said.

Many people now want to return those streets to two-way traffic. The Downtown Master Plan calls for it. The Urban County Council has endorsed it. Mayor Jim Gray has commissioned a study to assess the business, traffic and environmental impacts.

Although Gray favors the switch, he wants a big-picture review and solid data before making any decisions, Scott Shapiro, a senior adviser to the mayor, said in a presentation Thursday to The Lexington Forum.

That review should be completed within 12 to 18 months, Shapiro said. The state Transportation Cabinet must sign off on changes, he said, but state officials “have been great to work with so far and have been very encouraging.”

Many cities that created one-way streets downtown about the time Lexington did have switched back and been glad they did, Shapiro said. But every city and street is different. No matter what decisions are made, some people will complain.

“My experience,” said former council member David Stevens, “has been that we have 300,000 traffic engineers in Lexington, and they all think they know what is best.”

Here is the central question: Does Lexington want a downtown that is better to drive through or come to?

One-way streets do move traffic faster. Suburbanites who commute to downtown offices like that, as do people coming and going from the area’s big events. One-way streets can also be less problematic for emergency and delivery vehicles.

Warren Rogers, a construction executive who said he has looked at cities that switched one-way streets back to two-way traffic, said accidents rose. That makes sense: motor vehicles may be traveling slower, but they mix it up more with each other, as well as with pedestrians and cyclists. And there are simply more pedestrians and cyclists on two-way streets.

“It’s about priorities. Is our priority the car, or is it people?” said Renee Jackson, executive director of the Downtown Lexington Corp., which represents downtown businesses and property owners. “Two-way traffic really is better for business.”

Two-way traffic encourages more people to use sidewalks, businesses have more visual exposure and streets are easier to navigate, especially for tourists and newcomers. Added traffic flexibility can ease congestion by providing more alternative routes.

While the city’s big traffic study is a good idea, here’s the thing: traffic, like water, tends to naturally make its way around obstacles. That’s what happened recently when sidewalk improvements reduced traffic on Main Street and shut it off completely on South Limestone. Drivers adapted.

Downtown is coming back to life, and eliminating most or all of the one-way street pairs is an important next step to making the heart of Lexington more pleasant and prosperous.

Silvestri, the boy who worked at his grandfather’s fruit stand, grew up to be one of Lexington’s major commercial real estate brokers. He says eliminating the one-way streets downtown will be especially good for smaller, locally owned businesses. It will help create jobs and lower vacancy rates, which in turn will raise property values and tax revenues.

Many Lexingtonians will still prefer suburbia to downtown, and that’s fine. Silvestri lives near Hamburg Place, which he points out has its own vexing traffic issues. “But at least,” he said, “the streets over there are two-way.”


How do we make the most of Men’s Health’s insult?

October 9, 2011

When Men’s Health magazine declared in June that Lexington is the nation’s most sedentary city, some people got angry. Others challenged the highly suspect data on which the ranking was based.

But local leaders and health advocates were thrilled. After all, what could be better motivation for changing the ugly truths behind that ranking?

“We know we’re not really the most sedentary city,” Mayor Jim Gray said. “But we also know we’re not the healthiest, either.”

Men’s Health’s slap at Lexington is a focus of this weekend’s Second Sunday celebration, which is likely to bring thousands of people to the CentrePointe meadow downtown from 2 to 6 p.m. Sunday. Festivities begin with a Sedentary Parade — that’s a parade that doesn’t move — and continue with a 5K race, a bike ride, a health fair and lots of opportunities for fun and exercise.

This is the fourth year for Second Sunday, a statewide effort in which almost all of Kentucky’s 120 counties close a prominent street and encourage residents to come outside and exercise.

Some communities, including Lexington, have expanded the program to monthly during good weather. For the second year, Blue Grass Airport closed its second runway on the second Sunday of June, and thousands came out to play on it. The airport plans to make it an annual event.

The Men’s Health ranking built support for Get Healthy Lexington, a partnership of local businesses that helps put together Second Sunday and similar initiatives.

So where do we go from here?

Jay McChord, an Urban County Council member and one of Second Sunday’s founders, has some ideas. “What if we gave Men’s Health a better story for next year?” he said. “What if Lexington became an inspiration for the entire country?”

McChord dreams of a follow-up story like this: America’s most sedentary city becomes a model of civic fitness. That attracts national attention and funding from private foundations to help Lexington build more infrastructure to make walking, biking and other physical activity a part of everyday life.

In many ways, America’s fitness landscape is ironic. On one hand, organized youth sports have never been more popular. Adult athletic events such as this weekend’s Bourbon Chase fill up only hours after registration opens. On the other hand, more Americans than ever before are overweight and out of shape, and they suffer from diseases that are the result of sedentary lifestyles.

It is easy to see how that happened. Adults drive more and walk less. They ride elevators and avoid stairs. Children play outside less and with video games more.

Because of safety concerns and suburban subdivision design, parents drive children everywhere rather than letting them walk or ride a bike.

McChord uses an economic analogy: We have the health “rich” and the health “poor,” but we have lost the large “middle class of health.” So how can we rebuild it?

As Lexington grows more dense to preserve farmland and limit the costly infrastructure of suburban sprawl, more attention must be paid to creating a less automobile-centric city, Gray said. That will give people more opportunities to incorporate physical activity into their everyday lives.

McChord said several national philanthropic foundations are giving hundreds of millions of dollars in grants to cities and organizations to help them accomplish significant policy changes that promote good health.

What policy changes could work in Lexington? McChord said city officials want to expand so-called joint-use agreements with schools and churches to make public and private athletic fields and playgrounds more available for everyone to use.

He said it also is important to change city development plans and building codes to encourage more physical activity. For example, McChord said, developers could get tax breaks for including bike racks or other facilities in their projects.

Painting more bicycle lanes on streets and building more multi-use trails are important steps. “The Legacy Trail opened up a lot of people’s eyes to what was possible,” McChord said. “We live in one of the most beautiful places in America. We’ve got to figure out more ways to enjoy it outside of a car.”

If you go

What: 2nd Sunday and Sedentary Parade. Non-moving “parade” kicks off afternoon of activities, health information and demonstrations; food and drinks available.

When: 2-6 p.m. Oct. 9.

Where: Robert F. Stephens Courthouse Plaza, CentrePointe lot and Phoenix Park, downtown Lexington.

Info: (859) 244-1944, Gethealthylexington.org. For activities in your county, go to 2ndsundayky.com.


Bike club for kids honors Isaac Murphy’s legacy

August 9, 2011

Writer Frank X Walker was bothered last summer when he attended opening-day festivities for the Legacy Trail and saw only a few other people of color.

“I got to thinking about what I could do to change that,” said Walker, 50, who has ridden a bicycle since he was a child in Danville. Walker’s 73-year-old father is an avid cyclist, and his son rides a bike to classes at the University of Kentucky.

Walker had recently published Isaac Murphy: I Dedicate This Ride, a book of poems based on the life of the great 19th-century black jockey. Murphy’s home in Lexington’s East End neighborhood stood where the trail will begin when it is completed. That gave Walker an idea that many others in Lexington were quick to embrace.

They created the Isaac Murphy Bicycle Club, which organized classes this summer for children in the East End, teaching them bicycle skills, safety and rules of the road with donated second-hand bicycles.

The children also learned about the history of their neighborhood, where more than a century ago, Murphy and other black jockeys and trainers at the old Kentucky Association track helped make Lexington the horse capital of the world.

On Aug. 20, about 25 kids who attended at least two of the three classes this summer will be given new bicycles, helmets, locks, safety lights and water bottles at the YMCA on Loudon Avenue. Then they will all take a ride on the Legacy Trail.

“I remember as a kid how exhilarating it was to ride my first new bicycle,” Walker said. “I want other kids to feel that, too.”

The kids will be encouraged to continue participating in rides and other club activities — and to get their friends and families riding bikes, too. “This might be a way to get people in this part of town walking and riding the Legacy Trail,” Walker said.

The club has received money and volunteer support from many Lexington organizations, including the Urban County Council, the city’s Partners for Youth program, the Bluegrass Cycling Club, the Blue Grass Community Foundation, Dick’s Sporting Goods, the Broke Spoke Community Bicycle Shop, the Police Activities League, the William Wells Brown Neighborhood Association, Seedleaf and the East Seventh Street Center.

“We’ve been collaborating with as many parties as we can find,” Walker said, adding that the club could still use more donations and sponsorships.

The Blue Grass Community Foundation’s Steve Austin, who earlier worked with the John S. and James L. Knight Foundation’s Legacy Project, which helped the city build the trail, said, “I want the kids of the East End, like kids anywhere in the city, to feel like it’s their trail, too.”

When I attended a club training session last week, Dave Overton of the Bluegrass Cycling Club was teaching bicycle skills to a couple dozen kids, ages 6 to 14. Afterward, volunteers served them lunch, including a cake decorated with the club’s logo: a jockey riding a bicycle.

“It’s fun to just be able to go out and have fun and do what you like doing,” said Zion Alaboudi, 10, who can’t wait to get his new bike.

The club plans more sessions of classes, and members are considering ways kids could earn bicycles through good school attendance and academic performance. And the East End was a good place to start, but Walker wants the club to eventually have chapters in other neighborhoods citywide.

His larger goal is to get more people of all ages and races on bicycles and walking to improve their health and get to know their community better. Walker, an associate professor of English at UK, has been leading weekly rides for other faculty members on the Legacy Trail. And he is trying to get 100 families to ride bicycles in the annual Roots & Heritage Festival parade, Sept. 10 in the East End.

“This is how you grow it,” Walker said. “You start with kids this age.”

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